Interior space, on-road competence, build quality
Room for improvement
Choppy low-speed ride, average performance of 1.6-litre version
By TIM BRITTEN 26/07/1999
MERCEDES applied the less-is-more approach when designing its latest S-class range. In view of the fact its predecessor drew criticism for its more-is-less tendencies, this was entirely appropriate.
In terms of statistics, evidence the company succeeded in righting previous wrongs is certainly available. The car weighs, according to model, as much as 300kg less than an equivalently equipped predecessor and is actually smaller outside, yet offers more interior stretching space.
Fuel economy is improved to the tune of 13 to 17 per cent due to the combination of reduced weight and improved aerodynamic efficiency - the S-class is down to an exceptionally low Cd of 0.27 which makes it one of the most slippery cars on the market.
On top of that, the new flagship Benz scores highly in terms of road performance and safety.
The S-class protects passengers from frontal offset and side impacts at speeds in excess of legal requirements while still ensuring safe performance at lower speeds.
The inherent safety of the car's structure is enhanced by the use of dual front airbags plus side bags for both front and rear passengers.
The overall weight reductions came from extensive use of aluminium components - in the bonnet, for instance - and more than twice the amount of high-strength steel than before.
From our experience, the accolades received by this new Benz are well justified.
The S-class, looking maybe smaller than its predecessor but still by no means diminutive, has undisputed presence on the road. Low- slung, artfully shaped and undeniably Benz, it makes an almost discreet statement of affluence.
One of the most interesting phenomenons is the S-class feels to the driver like a smaller car. The impression of bulk - especially in the long-wheelbase S430L - is there but it is alleviated by a commanding driving position in which the driver, gripping a nice, smallish wheel, looks out and over a relatively short bonnet.
The impression of compactness is furthered by the use of multitudinous control systems that leave the driver with little chance of inadvertently doing something stupid behind the wheel.
As well as adaptive pneumatic suspension, the S430L comes with the Benz electronic stability program (ESP) to alleviate driver indiscretions, as well as deadly serious ventilated and drilled disc brakes claimed by Mercedes to be race car-like in dimensions and stopping abilities. In the long-wheelbase S430 and S500, the rear discs as well as the front discs are ventilated.
Engines include variants of the modular V6 and V8 powerplants used elsewhere in the Benz range, starting with the 165kW, 3.2- litre V6 and topping out with the 225kW, 5.0-litre V8.
The S430L's 4.3-litre V8 develops a considerable 205kW and winds out a bulky 400Nm of torque between 3000 and 4400rpm, more than enough to allow the relatively trim car to hustle along quite urgently if required. Mercedes says the S430 can reach 100km/h in just over seven seconds which would have the still substantial limo running comfortably alongside - for example - local powerhouses such as an XR8 Falcon.
The V8 follows strong initial acceleration with a steady increase in output as speeds rise, making it a confidence-inspiring car on the open road, as well as very effective in the city.
And the engineers have been careful when considering the quality of engine sound to leave something audible to please the ears of an enthusiastic driver without offending passengers.
It has not, like the Lexus LS400, been refined down to the finest degree so no feel of what is going on with engine or chassis is evident.
The big Mercedes drives like a much smaller car, feeling relatively nimble at all times - except when attempting a tight parking space.
Suspension settings are alterable via a switch at the centre of the instrument panel, giving the driver a choice between a soft, boulevard ride or a tighter feel for press-on motoring. Regardless of which choice, the S430L steers and grips with calm tenacity, conveying a sense of security that cannot be matched by too many cars.
Knowing that all the systems are working at keeping the car firmly planted on the road, and eager to launch from point A to point B with a minimum of delay, the driver is thus free to enjoy the ambience of the top-line Benz.
In terms of equipment, there is not a lot that can be added. The S430L comes with electrically-adjustable seats front and rear, electric steering wheel adjustment, multi-adjustable seats with an "ergonomic" setting that, at the press of a button, sets the seat up in what is supposedly the optimum position.
The climate control system actually adds up the number of passengers then decides on appropriate air volumes, while there is a sensor that samples the air outside the car and is able to shut down the intakes if the pollutant readings are above a certain level.
Despite the Benz obsession with simple ergonomics that have some of its cars looking almost spartan inside, the S-class at times overwhelms with complexity and throws in a few aberrations as well.
On the test car, for example, the radio defied ergonomic principles with its complex, non-intuitive push-button controls while the seat adjustment - and heating and cooling - buttons on the doors required a long, serious study before they could be mastered.
There are a few of the expected Mercedes touches such as the familiar foot park-brake and a "soft-close" assisted boot latch, although the previous trademark heavy accelerator pedal appears to have been retired - for the S-class anyway.
The driver's environment is otherwise in keeping with S-class expectations with - there's some hesitation in saying this - excellent Lexus-style fluoro instrument needles and a steering column that lifts away from the driver's knees when the ignition is switched off.
Interior space, as expected, is gargantuan in the long-wheelbase version, especially in the back seat where passengers can lounge in electrically-adjustable seats and stretch out to their hearts' content almost regardless of how far back the front seats are adjusted.
The boot is also exceptionally large, very wide and deep enough to swallow quite enormous loads. The electric-assist for the boot latch is a nice, secure touch.
Mercedes-Benz set out with the S-class to build a car that redefined luxury car motoring. It has and now the rest of the industry has to catch up.